Adalbert Stifter and the "Biedermeier" Imagination

By Devlin, Roger | Modern Age, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Adalbert Stifter and the "Biedermeier" Imagination

Devlin, Roger, Modern Age

An historian once suggested that the continued availability of classic works of literature in the Soviet Union helped victims of the communist "experiment" retain their grip on sanity by reminding them what normal human life and society were like. With the progress of social engineering in the West, we may be approaching the point where imaginative literature is called upon to perform a similar service for us.

Not all literature is equally suitable for such a purpose, however. Many of the "classics" of modernism are marked, like the modern era itself, by a tendency to sacrifice the normal to the abnormal and by a morbid fascination with the violent and grotesque. What our age most needs is precisely what it characteristically rejects: an imaginative literature informed by a grasp of the normal and normative in human experience, or, in Chesterton's overfamiliar formulation, by a centricity rather than eccentricity of genius. Such a counter current certainly exists within modern literature, but often finds it difficult to get a hearing. This is in part because literary appreciation has in recent decades been monopolized by a kind of guild bound by a shared set of assumptions hostile to the main tradition of Western humanism.

Some national literary traditions have suffered at the hands of this gatekeepers' guild more than others, and German literature has fared worse than most. In the first place, Germany is a self-consciously "late born" nation: an accepted canon of classic English, French, Italian, and Spanish literature already existed at a time when Germany was still recovering from its confessional wars and producing little serious literature in its own language at all. Goethe came to maturity at the high tide of the Enlightenment, on the eve of the French Revolution. So there was no great period of the national literature unmarked by the political preoccupations of modernity.

Furthermore, literary studies in Germany have been marked to a greater extent and for a longer period than in Britain or America by political partisanship centered upon the conflicts of the Revolutionary era: the left/right and progressive/reactionary distinctions, "democracy," the "emancipation" of women, and so forth. The specialist who immerses himself in dusty nineteenth-century German literary controversies is liable to experience an eerie sense of familiarity in the overriding concern he finds for the political tendencies of works under consideration. In a word, Political Correctness had about a century's head start in the German speaking world. Not all such political distortions of literature, be it noted, were of a strict Jacobin character: there was also a trend, more pronounced toward the end of the century, toward germanomania or hypernationalism, which was quite as willing as any politics of liberation and leveling to sacrifice literary to political concerns.

Perhaps the best example of the German triumph of politics over literature is the success of the term Biedermeier. Standard histories of the literature (those in German itself more than those in English) work with a periodization in which the age between Romanticism and late nineteenth-century Realism is designated Biedermeier-Vormarz. This literary epoch is said to coincide, ideally, with Metternich's regime in Austria between the fall of Napoleon and 1848. Viennese society during this time was extensively penetrated by a network of police informers; the government feared that any lowering of its guard would clear the path to power for some new Robespierre. A similar situation existed in many of the other German States. Writers of this period are accordingly treated either as part of the Vormarz, the "progressive" movement in society leading toward the Revolutions of 1848, or as part of the "reactionary" Biedermeier tendency. To mainstream German critics, in other words, the central fact about authors designated Biedermeier is not anything actually found in their writings, but the lack of progressive or revolutionary political concerns there. …

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